Friday, June 26, 2009

How We Failed Michael Jackson

He was five years old when we began to pay attention to him, and we’ve been paying attention to him ever since.
That about sums it up.

Could you live to fifty with that kind of constant attention? Sure, the lonely, isolated, and eventually pathetic man that had become Michael Jackson craved the attention, he sought it out, he even orchestrated much of it, but every parent knows that the best way to kill the purity of a child, the good nature of a developing human being, is to either smother him with adulation he could never live up to, or to constantly reinforce negative behavior with undeserved praise and reward. We have, as a culture, been complicit in raising Michael by that same toxic formula.

But, obviously, that’s not all there is to say about Michael Jackson’s tragic life, and not too surprising death. We love our entertainment royalty in this country. We like to discover them, particularly when they’re still children, or adolescents. We like to build them up, we like to watch them succeed, and then, we like even more, to watch them fall, to fail, to eventually self-destruct, burdened by the weight of our impossible and unrealistic expectations. If that self-destruction culminates in their premature death, we then glorify, and deify them for all the ‘joy’ they’ve given us through their own miserable lives, and diminishing work. It, somehow, helps us feel better about ourselves. It’s twisted, I know, but nevertheless, it’s how things happen.

I am one who has always been opposed to ‘blood-line’ royalty, like they have in the U.K. But it seems to me that, since we create our own royalty in the U.S. anyway, we might be better off following their lead, appointing a royal family who would succeed one another by birth, a family upon which we would place no expectations except to exist as figureheads. It would satisfy our need for idol worship, and spare the truly talented artists, writers, actors, musicians, and entertainers the worship and adulation that eventually kills them.
In a perfect world.

As a child Michael Jackson was trained by an unscrupulous father to please you and me, to capture our attention, to reach into our pockets, take our money, and bring it home to papa, much like an organ grinder’s monkey collecting dollar bills from people on the sidewalk. (Please, no racial accusations. You know what I mean.) Michael performed, and he performed well. We lapped it up. We loved him, and yes, we gave his father our money. It soon became apparent that Michael’s talent no longer required the controlling strings of his father. He hooked up with powerful entertainment executives, and the mega-producer Quincy Jones, to develop his talent, to forge his own identity, to make his own money. We followed him through the transition, supported his creativity, took pride in his development like we would one of our own children, and watched his success skyrocket like no other child/young man before him. We loved his music, and he became an entertainer extraordinaire, perhaps the greatest entertainer ever. He made us feel good inside. He made our entire culture want to dance.
But something disturbing was happening with Michael Jackson.

Michael was changing. His voice was changing, his appearance was changing, and his behavior was changing. We found it fascinating. We talked about it. In fact, we could not stop talking about it. Michael, the peculiar and eccentric entertainer. We were enthralled. Cosmetic surgeries began molding him into the frightening image of a confused adolescent. But he was a grown man. Michael had the money to do whatever he wanted, and he’d chosen to re-construct his own face. He sculpted his nose to look like Peter Pan, he cut his lips off in denial of being a black man, and he even began to bleach his skin to emphasize the point. Michael was self-destructing before our eyes, his self-loathing had reached a dangerous level, and we loved every minute of it. He was dressing like Royalty, with his white glove (s) and regal jackets, his puffy shirts, and his medallions. He named himself the King of Pop. We were fascinated, and we began to kiss his ring at every opportunity.
We ‘smothered him with adulation, and reinforced his behavior with undeserved praise and reward’.

Michael Jackson married Priscilla Presley to bolster his position as music royalty. He married (hired) a woman to bear his children, and then made it impossible for her to see them. Michael began making performance commitments, taking the money up-front, and then canceling the tours after the promoters had spent millions of dollars on the endeavors. He was becoming unscrupulous. Michael had become a full-fledged pill head, unpredictable, and untrustworthy, and we, as fans, continued to prop him up at every opportunity.

Michael began to whisper, he began to speak like a child, he began to act like a child, and he began to sleep with children not his own. Michael began to pretend that he did not even understand common adult concepts, or concerns. He professed a childlike innocence, and ignorance, relating to any behavior that raised the eyebrows of even the most casually concerned among us. Over time, Michael morphed himself into a modern day Pied Piper. He built Neverland while we watched, and wondered. He gathered children around himself like the ice-cream man, and we dismissed it all as the benevolent actions of a sensitive, caring, if misunderstood soul. Michael was becoming, before our eyes, deceitful, disingenuous, and possibly dangerous, to children, and to himself. We continued to observe things from a distance, but disregarded our own suspicions while Michael hid his own perverse behaviors in plain sight. When things got too hot for him, when even a minimal degree of accountability was required of him, he would become sick and check himself into a hospital. It was a pattern he repeated over and over throughout the past ten or fifteen years. Juries would also refuse to hold Michael responsible for his behavior. All accountability would, ultimately, be dismissed on the heels of our sympathy.
He was, after all, a product of our own creation.

Michael’s journey reads like a Greek tragedy. It is rife with joy, and with despair. It is a story replete with Michael’s darkness, and with the darkness of our own hearts as well. We are the same person. It is a morality tale, lacking only in morality. It is the story of a crippled man, of a broken, lonely man, isolated by the adulation of his, otherwise, well-intentioned, fans. It is a lesson for each of us to take to heart, to consider how we relate to those who move and entertain us.

I only hope there is peace now for this intensely talented, but profoundly, and perpetually troubled man.

Because there has not yet been an autopsy, we don’t know specifically what killed The King of Pop.
But really, I think we do.
Personally, and as a culture, we have failed Michael Jackson.

‘He was five years old when we began to pay attention to him, and we’ve been paying attention to him ever since.
That about sums it up.’